Artists use fundamental forms, circle, square etc. The circle especially, with its long, long history as a spiritual shape.
The Richard Long exhibition at the Hepworth in Wakefield included his familiar collections of stones in circles, ovals and lines.
It is a wonderful light filled gallery, sitting right in the river.
Notice how those familiar shapes recur outside, the circular tyres and the spherical ball.
Circling Around the Problem
How do we know how to understand these shapes in art? Why, for instance, do we not think that Long is trying to tell us something about Dante’s nine circles of Hell for example? Richard Long makes art about walking and Dante and Virgil walk through those circles after all.
Answer: context and proximity. There is nothing in his work that leads the viewer to make those sorts of iconographic connections. Equally there is nothing to stop us doing so if we wish. I would think parts of the process, Day 5 for example, were hellish. Artists compose art, they put things next to each other for a purpose. The forms of that arrangement, the way they occupy the constructed space, are the essence of the art. Long places objects carefully, their equal spacing is reminiscent of the steps that make up his art, ie the walks that these arrangements refer to.
Does a Painted Circle have the Same Meaning?
In another place (National Gallery, London), in a different context, how should we understand another art work that features circular forms? Is Gerard David’s image also about a lone artist walking through what is left of the wild parts of the world?
No? How do we know that is so?
An extraordinary painting, that celebrates the richness of material objects, look at the jewellery, the tapestries and the marble. All of this for a chapel dedicated to an ascetic hermit, you can see Saint Anthony lurking in the background between the right hand pillar and female saint.
A Ring of Hands
Even more noticeable is the ring of hands, stretching from Mary Magdalene on the right, who turns the book of Saint Barbara.
The Virgin Mary’s hands are interlocked (unusually) around the Christ Child, he is handing a ring to Saint Catherine who, in a beautiful bit of foreshortening is reaching out to touch the praying hands of the donor (Richard de Visch de La Chapelle).
That ring is the crucial image.
My general theme is that artists are less interested in filling their paintings with text based puzzles (see for example James Elkins: ‘Why are Our Pictures Puzzles?) and far more interested in the using the fundamental tools of image making: in particular pictorial space. This was a painting for the altar of St Catherine.
She was martyred, eventually, first by being bound to a studded wheel (that attribute is just behind her to the right) and then finally beheaded. Christ offers her a ring to mark her mystic marriage to him (she refused to submit to the Emperor Maxentius, saying that she was already a bride of Christ). David has taken the opportunity, throughout this painting to stress the circular theme:
- the semi-circle of figures in front of us
- the ring
- the jewelled ornament above Mary’s head
- the tower/ attribute of Saint Barbara (she was walled up in a tower by her father) echoed by an octagonal tower behind her
- the cylindrical ointment jar/ attribute for Mary Magdalen
- the circular tile decoration on the marble floor.
- And, of course the enclosing form of the walled garden, symbol of The Virgin Mary, that surrounds this group and includes us as the figure at the other side of this circle of initiates.
The Viewer Within the Painted Space
David has positioned the viewer as an internal spectator within the group, we are either sitting, or more likely kneeling directly opposite the mother and child, a position of great honour. We do not, conceptually, see the figures from the point of view of the painted donor, he has paid for his own representation, he wants to look at it too. We see from his position kneeling in front of the actual altar.
Everything about the composition and iconography of this painting leads us back to the patron saint, to the role of the Virgin Mary in our salvation and to the inclusion of the donor in that exclusive circle. David’s role is to construct the space, not to walk about in it and report back.
This might also be the place to ask another question: what is the difference in art between a hole
and a circle?